Braves have 3 roster questions to answer

Braves have 3 roster questions to answer

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Along with providing a look at how Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies and other top prospects might soon enrich Atlanta's future, Spring Training has given the Braves reason to alter many of the roster projections that existed when they made their mid-February arrival to Florida.

Some of the changes like Jeff Francoeur's ascension from unemployed to legitimate Opening Day roster candidate have slowly evolved over the course of the past six weeks. Others, like Mike Foltynewicz's strong bid to begin the season as Atlanta's fifth starter, have unexpectedly taken shape over the course of the past week.

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Fortunately for the Braves, Foltynewicz's rise has simply added to the many of their recent encouraging health-related developments. Jason Grilli has seemingly found comfort with his "new foot," and Freddie Freeman's right wrist has been cooperative, minus the five-minute scare he experienced nearly two weeks ago.

Now with Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Braves need to assess how some of these developments will affect their roster plans. Here are three questions that will be evaluated over the remainder of Spring Training.

Who will begin the season as Atlanta's fifth starter?

As recently as early last week, it was assumed Foltynewicz would simply continue slowly regaining the strength and stamina that he lost while spending most of the offseason recovering from a blood clot that sidelined him in September. But that was before the hard-throwing right-hander stepped back on the mound and began throwing 97-mph pellets with relative ease. As he recorded five strikeouts over 3 2/3 innings against the Astros' normal lineup on Tuesday, Foltynewicz displayed a sense of confidence and composure that was not seen last year.

Foltynewicz's strong start

If Foltynewicz remains healthy, there is certainly reason to believe he will make his regular-season debut against the Nationals on April 12 -- the first day the Braves will need a fifth starter. He would have time to make three more starts to prepare before that date.

Foltynewicz possesses far greater upside than either of the other two candidates -- Manny Banuelos and Williams Perez -- and more importantly, he has been more impressive than either of them over the past week.

As the Braves spend the next few months assessing some of their top pitching prospects -- Sean Newcomb, Aaron Blair and Tyrell Jenkins -- they can be encouraged by the great strides made this year by last year's top two pitching prospects -- Foltynewicz and Matt Wisler. In fact, as Wisler prepares to open this year as Atlanta's No. 3 starter, it can be argued that he could have the greatest impact on the depth of a rotation that will also include Julio Teheran, Bud Norris and Jhoulys Chacin.

Will Francoeur make the Opening Day roster?

This certainly did not seem likely when the Braves signed Francoeur to a Minor League deal on Feb. 24, with no apparent available roster spot. Though there still is not an obvious vacancy, the past few weeks have provided reason to believe the Braves are willing to make a change that would allow them to put Francoeur's right-handed bat on their bench.

Francoeur on veteran leadership

In order to create a roster spot for Francoeur, the Braves might need to eat the $1.25 million they guaranteed to Emilio Bonifacio in December. This would be chump change compared to the $15 million they'll likely eat to part ways with Nick Swisher. But more importantly, it's a cost the Braves are seemingly willing to assume to give Francoeur another chance to play in Atlanta.

• Bonifacio-Frenchy battle may go down to wire

Who will fill the final bullpen spots?

Now that Grilli appears capable of fulfilling his goal to return from a ruptured Achilles tendon at 39 years old, the only question is whether he or Arodys Vizcaino will handle the ninth inning. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has indicated he could use both in the closer's role. Whatever the case, this duo, Jim Johnson and Alexi Ogando will serve as the bullpen's primary right-handers. Non-roster invitee Alex Torres will serve as one of the left-handers, and the Braves would like Ian Krol to serve as the other.

• Back end of bullpen starting to take shape

But since Krol has struggled this spring, there is at least reason to wonder if the team might need to evaluate other options. The Braves have some interesting decisions to make concerning Daniel Winkler, who was selected in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft, and Jose Ramirez, the only player in camp who is out of options. Winkler has pitched well enough to warrant taking the risk of having to carry him on the roster through at least the first week of June.

Smoltz chats with Grilli

Ramirez appeared primed for a roster spot when he struck out Jose Altuve and George Springer with the bases loaded on March 13. But the hard-throwing right-hander who has command issues will need to finish strong after allowing two runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings against the Astros on Tuesday.

Because the Braves do not need a fifth starter until April 12, they can carry eight relievers until that date. This seemingly sets up the possibility that Krol or Ramirez could earn one of the final spots.

Atlanta will obviously carry a long reliever to provide some insurance for its suspect rotation. If Perez does not get the fifth spot, he could be an option for this role. Other candidates include non-roster invitee Carlos Torres or the team's No. 22-ranked prospect John Gant.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.